North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure Postlude

A 400-mile sea kayak voyage down California’s Pacific shore

Sunrises, sunsets and sublime solitude all lend considerable charm to the North Coast

Sunrises, sunsets and sublime solitude all lend considerable charm to the North Coast

By Paul McHugh

OCT. 17, 2005 — My Swiss Army knife handle was clogged with old peanut butter – one of many signs it was time to put into port for repairs and resupply. So, on Friday evening, I was happy to see our kayaks perched on a beach just seaward of a major port: San Francisco.

We watched huge tankers, container ships, fishing vessels and even tour ferries, all splendidly lighted, drag wakes below the Golden Gate bridge while foghorns boomed and hooted.

Our 400-mile sea kayak voyage from the Winchuck River in Oregon to San Francisco Bay – begun by myself, Bo Barnes and John Weed on September 6 – was nearly at an end.

In a radio interview with KCBS by cell phone late that day, an announcer suggested we were awaiting better conditions before crossing the strait to make landfall at Crissy Field. Not entirely right, but close.

On Friday we had completed a third straight day of paddling in heavy fog. We'd made our transit from Bolinas to Point Bonita in under four hours, swathed in wet gauze the entire way, and hit marker buoys precisely. We could have made S.F. landfall right then.

But we didn't want to. Not quite yet. Barnes and Weed planned to paddle on Saturday to the Sea Trek Regatta in Sausalito, the West Coast's largest sea kayak race. I wanted to hang out all Saturday at Kirby Cove, one treasure of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area parks.

The conditions I hoped to improve were mental. I wished to savor this last moment in our expedition. I wanted to mull over the hazards and blessings, all we had seen, people and wildlife we'd encountered, and meditate upon meaning.

By Sunday, as we did shove off for the last time, that mental and emotional evaluation was well under way. I don't suppose it will ever end. If any of you hope to change your life, go spend more than a month living simply while exploring a wilderness. Adventures awaken the soul.

But it's also rather nice when they end. You return to your customary situation with an enhanced appreciation for it.

Never had the Golden Gate Bridge or the city of San Francisco seemed more lovely or appealing to me than they did as we paddled under that famous russet arch. My heart was beating hard under a stimulation that – for the first time in weeks – wasn't stress.

My wife, Dawn Garcia, and The Chronicle had arranged a hearty welcome on the beach at Crissy Field. I kissed the sand, hugged my lass, gave handshakes all around, and made spontaneous comments into microphones.

These, I hope, do not sound like babble. But I was moved, elated, satisfied and relieved all at once. It was hard to sort out which feeling or thought ought to emerge from my mouth next.

Later, driving off with my trusty Pijon Kodiak kayak on a rack above me instead of rocking away beneath me, many images from our voyage flooded back. I did desperately want to be home. But I was already missing the sea.

I'll miss sounds. The roar and mumble of surf, sigh of wind, calls of the shore and waterbirds, the sob of a remote whistle buoy. These have been constant companions and will haunt my dreams. The only one I want to forget is the bark of sea lions. How those guys can make endless conversations entirely of one syllable is beyond me. I'll miss the vistas, the mystic light, the soaring cliffs and deep forests.

And smaller but no less gripping sights, like an umber checkerspot butterfly I saw miles out to sea near Mendocino. It rested lightly upon the water like a feather fallen on blue glass, beautiful and touching in its graceful death.

I'll miss my companions, too

Bo Barnes invigorates any scene with his stentorian laughter and fathomless energy. At Kirby Cove, I had asked him to sum up his experience on our voyage.

Barnes said, "I never want to do an expedition this long again. Physically, everything worked fine. The beauty of the coast was quite memorable. All the capes and points were everything I thought they'd be, bogeymen that had to be wrestled down.

"Sometimes, if I seemed spaced out as I paddled, it's because I thought about what I want to do over my next 30 years. I decided, it's to be an ambassador for kayaking and water sports."

John Weed proved that mastery can be both graceful and sly, not only in his paddle strokes, but also in his judgment and commentary.

"We found much of what I expected, beautiful, unusual rock formations and the dicey conditions," Weed said. "The big capes especially were pretty cool, with all that lumpy water bumping us around. "In terms of self-discovery, it reaffirmed the value of patience."

An experienced expeditionist, kayak instructor and guide, Weed did offer a tip to any kayakers who hope to follow our route. "Don't bet your life on the weather forecast."

To which I would add, bring a Gore-Tex drysuit. They added measurably to our warmth and safety in harsh conditions. And the mapping GPS units we used were invaluable, especially in heavy fog or darkness. Think of it as the mariners' express card: Don't leave port without it.

The primary land-based member of our party was Chronicle photographer Michael Maloney. Without his kindness and willingness to go the literal extra mile, our expedition might still have succeeded, but would not have been as pleasant.

Maloney supplied us with unfailing good cheer, many a reliable rendezvous, and occasionally, even pizza. (Additional fine Maloney photographs of the trip can be found at

I also have to say, I was blown away by the kindness and generosity of folks we met along the way, who felt excited or inspired by our trip. Undertake something that excites the imagination, and it's amazing the kind of energy and support you'll draw to your side.

One thing I'm happiest about is that this adventure was accomplished by three guys in their fifties. I hope other folks in their middle years can take inspiration from that.

Yes, you do have to fight for the strength and fitness you want to keep during the middle years. But there's every reason to charge into that fray. Consider the alternative.

Finally, I'd like to say some things about California's precious North Coast, this region that has captured my affection and imagination for so long that I just had to undertake a voyage that took me deeper into the region than I'd gone before.

It's important to realize how much of our present prosperity in Northern California is built upon the graves of native peoples and swaths of ravaged environment. The most useful way to react is to honor the memory of what took place, and try to heal – not ignore – the wounds.

That's why I spent so much time writing about the North Coast massacres, which are now so little recalled. And also, why I sought to explain and celebrate the efforts of those who have labored long to fix the rivers and forests that constitute this region's true wealth.

The North Coast's Character

Which brings up a key point about the North Coast's character. This was one of the last frontiers, where the four-centuries-long mad dash to discover and exploit New World resources finally smacked into the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, there was no more easy grabbing of land or wildlife or water or timber.

Here, beginning in the 1960s, began a wave of different thought and behavior. It now rebounds to the north, south and east.

It's a notion that Peter Berg of the Planet Drum Foundation calls, "reinhabiting the landscape." It's what the activist Richard Gienger of Whale Gulch calls, "seeing if you can live in a spot and care about it at the same time."

It's about cherishing natural resources while using them carefully, with long-term sustainability for humans and all other creatures. Understanding the North Coast today means grasping this as a dominant vision for its future.

Appreciating the North Coast and all its natural splendor also means honoring crusaders who fought for shoreline zones and public access, redwood groves and wild and scenic rivers, wilderness and parks.

It means supporting the local, state and federal agencies that serve and preserve these areas.

If we truly regard these places as public treasures, it's time we treated them as such. This is a huge, long-term problem, and requires much attention.

So, we should start on it yesterday.


— See all previous posts from the NORTH COAST SERIES

Ed. Note: Paul McHugh’s North Coast Series first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on S.F. Gate in 2005. The posts, edited and updated for this version, follow McHugh, John Weed and Bo Barnes on a 400-mile, sea kayak voyage along California’s shore. The stories will be posted on almost daily as they appeared 11 years ago, following the crew from their launch on September 6th through their paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 16th.